The flames raged and pounded against the side of the house. They towered to the rooftop of the one-story, three-bedroom, ranch-style house that our neighbor called home in Waxhaw, NC. They grew up next to us, the only other house on Bivens St. The natural areas and bushes lining the backside of their home were already burnt to a crisp. The flames now threatened to consume the rest of the house. I suspect they would have already begun devouring the house had it not been made of brick. The moment my sister and I saw the flames, we cried out and sprinted back to our house, which sat just some 30 yards from the home threatening to burn to the ground. I outran my sister to the front door and alerted my parents as to the emergency that had suddenly been thrust into our laps. The moments that followed were some of the most frightening of my life.
Let’s back up about an hour from this moment. It was the 4th of July. As was our tradition up until this point, my aunt and uncle, along with my cousins, all gathered with us to wrap up our Patriotic celebration with the grand finale of shooting off fireworks from the street in front of our house. I might add that fireworks were as illegal in North Carolina back then as they are today. I might also add that people broke that law as frequently back then as they do today. At the time, we were one of the lawbreakers.
The night ended well, the fireworks were great, and another year seemed in the books as far as The 4th of July goes. My cousins, along with my aunt and uncle, all left to go home. My parents began to clean up. My sister and I went to walk the dog around the block. That’s when we saw the flames raging, threatening to burn down our neighbor’s house. I often wonder how different my life would be had we not decided to go walk the dog on that unforgettable July 4th evening. But the lesson here is not, “Always walk your dog on the 4th of July.” While it’s good advice, the lesson is not even “Never shoot off fireworks on the 4th of July!”
Picking up where I left off earlier. I ran into the house and alarmingly notified my parents that the neighbor’s house was on fire! Our neighbors had a house at the lake, which is where they were every 4th of July. They weren’t even home. The water hose at their house was on the end where the flames were ablaze. It was of no use. Our water hose didn’t stretch that far. After calling the Fire Department, which was a seven-digit call in those days, we knew our only hope was to carry buckets of water from our house to the flames until the fire truck got there.
My sister and I began filling up bucket after bucket of water from the hose attached to our house. My mom and dad ran like Olympic sprinters with buckets of water in hand from our house to the neighbors in an attempt to quench the flames. I never knew my parents could run so fast! We were like a well-oiled fire brigade! Okay, actually, we were just desperate and filled with adrenaline. Nonetheless, with a little likely help from Heaven, we were able to extinguish the flames before the Fire Department arrived. And they were only about a 5-10-minute walk from our house.
The fire department arrived and inspected the house thoroughly. They sprayed down the impacted area to make sure there was nothing left smoldering that would reignite. The town was still small enough at the time that we knew every person on the fire department. A friend of the family, June Plyler, then walked around the corner with a burned bottle rocket in hand and said, “I think I have the culprit for your fire.” In the darkness of that Independence Day, I watched my dad bow his head. The next few moments were a bit deflating and embarrassing for us all. There were few words.
To be fair, there were lots of people from the neighborhood on the other side of our neighbor’s house shooting off fireworks as well. That bottle rocket could have come from anywhere. But my dad took responsibility for it. He owned it all. The natural areas and all the bushes would have to be replanted. The black soot from the flames on the side of the house would have to be cleaned and pressure-washed. But thank God, that was the only damage. The house was spared and left standing with no further damage, not even to the roof.
The 3 days that followed were weary and long, as we waited for our neighbor’s to return home from the lake. Raeford Couick and my dad had bought that stretch of land together and built their houses next to each other. They grew up together in that town. They were the best of friends. And now, my dad’s family had almost burnt his friend’s house down, by carelessly shooting off fireworks on the 4th of July.
I’ll never forget the day they returned and my dad walked over to tell them what happened. We didn’t know what would happen next. Almost an hour went by before my dad came back. We waited anxiously, wondering what must be happening. He returned. There were no black eyes, bruises, or blood. But just minutes later, there were police cars in the driveway of my neighbor, taking a report.
Again, my dad owned all of it. When he walked over to their house, he didn’t call up my uncle, who had also been shooting fireworks with us, to go with him. He didn’t take any of us with him. He didn’t talk about the other neighbors. He took responsibility for it all. He paid for the bushes and natural areas to be replanted and for the house to be cleaned. My allowance was unaffected. He owned it all. He took responsibility for what he had done wrong…for what WE had all done wrong. Eventually, their friendship was restored and things went back to normal.
I’ll never forget the looks on my dad’s face multiple times over those next several days. Several years later, after battling alcoholism for more years than I can count, I would see that look again, when after getting arrested for a DUI, my dad stood at the end of a long hallway in front of a jail cell, and told my mom “I’m so sorry” after she came to bail him out. I saw the same look just days later when he was showing me the bed he shared in a room full of other recovering alcoholics and drug-addicts at a rehab facility in Union County, NC. Yet again, he took responsibility, and he owned it all.
There was only so much he could do to repair the damage from that fateful July 4th evening. There was only so much he could do to repair the emotional damage we all suffered from his addiction for so many years. But he took responsibility, and did as much as he could do on his end. When he fell down, he owned it and got back up. He never made excuses, never blamed anyone else, and never played the role of victim.
Surprisingly, though none of us would ever wish to walk through those broken-world experiences willingly, when we did, we found a fortitude and grace that left us better than we were before. That grace, offered by others, but most importantly, offered by the Christ that we followed, is what sustained us, and ultimately set us free to resume life with joy. Life was much sweeter because of it.
And that was my 4th of July lesson. It had little to do with patriotism, walking dogs, shooting off fireworks, or even breaking the law. It was simply, when you mess up, take responsibility for it and own it. Do what you can to mend it. But realize you’ll only be able to do so much, and that is natural. Some of the hurt from those consequences of broken-world choices, serves to remind us that for followers of Jesus, this broken world is ultimately not our home, which leads to the best part. If you’re truly repentant, you may or may not get grace from the offended or the people you hurt, but you’ll always get it from your Savior, Jesus. Accept that and you’ll discover how amazing that grace is, particularly when you’re the “wretch” the song talks about.